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Technology

Nikon teams up with Apple alums' venture on lidar

Japanese camera maker to help Aeva move beyond self-driving cars

Nikon is expanding into other fields as its traditional mainstay camera business declines.   © Reuters

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- Nikon will partner with an American startup founded by former Apple employees to develop better measurement tools for auto and aircraft manufacturing, using technology developed to guide autonomous vehicles.

The tie-up announced Tuesday between the Japanese camera manufacturer and Silicon Valley-based Aeva will leverage the latter's lidar -- light detection and ranging -- sensors for more precise measurements. They want to bring products to market in 2025.

The arrangement aims to expand applications of Aeva's technology beyond the company's main focus of autonomous driving while giving Nikon an opportunity to cultivate a new market as demand for cameras continues to decline.

Aeva was launched in 2017 by CEO Soroush Salehian and President Mina Rezk, who were both involved in managing sensor development at Apple. It has received support from such companies as Porsche SE, a minor investor.

Typical lidar sensors work much like radar, bouncing laser light off objects to gauge distance. But the "frequency-modulated continuous-wave" lidar used by Aeva can also measure an object's velocity.

The company has packed this technology into compact chips that can enable autonomous vehicles to detect objects hundreds of meters away.

A lidar-on-a-chip sensor developed by Aeva: The U.S. startup says the technology can be used to take micron-level measurements. (Photo courtesy of Aeva)

In measuring equipment, these sensors can produce highly accurate readings at short distances. Nikon and Aeva envision small measuring instruments that would let manufacturers run quality checks throughout the production process instead of at the end, spotting defects sooner and saving time and resources.

"This solution will achieve measurements with micron-level accuracy," Rezk said in a news release.

Nikon has developed and produced laser measuring tools for automakers including Fiat parent Stellantis and BMW and for major aerospace companies. The plan is to market the new lidar-based gear to these existing customers as well as incorporate it into industrial equipment.

With the market for cameras shrinking, Nikon has been searching for a new growth driver -- outside its main fields of cameras and photolithography equipment for chipmakers -- where it can apply its optics, measuring and microfabrication expertise.

It is also pouring resources into optical processing equipment, a kind of 3D printer for metal, and in April announced a foray into space supply chains with the acquisition of Boeing-backed satellite parts maker Morf3D.

Aeva has received investments from Porsche SE and teamed up with companies including Porsche and trucking technology maker TuSimple. Nikon is its second Japanese partner, after Denso, with which Aeva announced a partnership in January. The Nikon tie-up aims to broaden the startup's scope, help it ramp up production, and provide some stability.

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